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What are esential services?

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By John Barnhart

It always amazes me that government spends so much money on essential services that it doesn’t have money for essential services. Take sidewalks in Bedford, for example.

Tommy Reynolds, a member of Bedford’s planning commission, pointed out at a meeting that the city used to build sidewalks, but hasn’t done so since the ‘80s. The issue came before the planning commission because the city’s zoning ordinance has placed this burden on entrepreneurs that want to build a business on Independence Boulevard. A lady who wants to set up a beauty salon there says that this will cost $70,000 and that amount makes it cost prohibitive for her to set up her business there.

Reynolds also noted that the city is not doing a good job of maintaining its existing sidewalks, which are deteriorating.

It’s obvious that Independence Boulevard needs sidewalks if the city wants that to be a commercial area. It’s obvious that the city needs businesses in order to expand its tax base. Furthermore, it’s obvious that requiring businesses to build the sidewalks means that some of the business development that the city wants and needs along that street won’t happen because of this cost burden.

It’s especially bad when a business has to spend this money to build a sidewalk to nowhere. The sidewalk in front of this entrepreneur’s establishment would connect to nothing, on either end and nobody can predict when other sidewalk segments would be built to join it.

Building and maintaining sidewalks within the city is a true essential government service. Finding the money for this seems to be the problem. Deciding how that can be done would be a matter for investigation and debate, but it is clear that there are a lot of budgetary issues that the city has no control over. Like all localities, Bedford is subject to unfunded mandates from Richmond. Most recently, the state Department of Environmental Quality mandated modifications to the dam at the city’s reservoir that will cost $5 million. Fortunately, Delegate Lacey Putney got money in the state budget to pay for this, so it ceased being unfunded.

This is only one example. Localities face many others and, while there are times when it’s reasonable for the state government to insist that a locality do something, the General Assembly has badly abused this. An unfunded mandate is a good way for state elected officials to look like good guys, shifting the burden of being the tax-collecting bad guy to local elected officials who must figure out how to pay for it.

Transportation infrastructure, another essential government service, is deteriorating all over the country. I don’t know what’s happening in every state, but I bet that wildly expanding ideas of what the government should spend money on is sucking up available funds. Virginia has transportation infrastructure needs but even suggesting that general fund money be used brings shrieks of horror from people who claim it will threaten essential services.

What are these essential services? Governor Tim Kaine apparently thinks universal prekindergarten is an essential service. This year he tried to start this in Virginia, planning to pay for it out of the rainy day fund in a year when tax revenue was lower than had been predicted, threatening cuts in existing programs. I can understand how Head Start could be helpful for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, but I’m mystified as to why this is essential for everybody.

Congress isn’t helpful, either, in spite of its proven ability to spend money like a 19-year-old sailor on his first foreign port liberty call.

At some point we need to get a grip on reality and decide what are actually essential government services. Elected officials must also learn to show fiscal restraint, and kick the habit of rolling tax-collecting duties down hill.

Give us another 15 years at the present rate and we’ll end up looking like a Third World country.